Issue is herd mentality: Higher education has failed to serve India

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Sonam Wangchuk, is a Ladakhi engineer, innovator and education reformist. He is founding director of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SEMCOL), which was set up in 1988 by a group of students who had been in his own words, the ‘victims’ of an alien education system foisted on Ladakh. He was also instrumental in the launch of Operation New Hope in 1994, a collaboration of government, village communities and civil society to introduce reforms in the government school system. In an exclusive in-depth interview with K Yatish Rajawat, Wangchuk talks extensively about his new experiment, the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL) and the challenges that confront Indian school and higher education. Excerpts from the interview.
Is the education system broken in today’s world. There is a school of thought, which says schools are preparing students for an industrial age. Both in the way they are taught and what they teach it is no longer relevant in today’s world. What do you think?
I believe that schools of today with all their answers on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, above everything else, take us back to the industrial revolution in time, when people thought that nature could be conquered and consumption or production could be unlimited. Today we know that this is not true, we see the mess we have landed ourselves in. The air is unsafe to breathe, water undrinkable and temperature unbearable. If we do more of the same, we will get more of the same results. If a patient is sick because of sugar, the first thing to do is stop sugar and then you may think about giving him healthier food. Secondly, this system is also based on the assumption that some parts of the world will be rich while others will be poor and serve the rich, providing little space for equity. If the whole world is equally rich then we will need several planets. Gandhi once said and that is not possible and perhaps in a lighter vein, this is what Elon Musk is trying with his efforts to populate Mars. The use-and-throw philosophy we use on earth is now being extended to use-and-throw of planet earth, which is laughable. I believe that education should be about healing the earth and dealing with the crises that we are in.
Climate change, environmental and the social breakdown as seen in the west, where old people live in old age homes and depressed, children in kindergarten are lonely and sad, where children need elderly and elderly need children, it is sad that India, which can pride itself on the Vedas and Upanishads, is following the same broken system. That leads to more and more misery. India’s lead in education was based not on fulfilling more and more desires but in conquering those desires. Education was not about consumption, but about contentment with less and less. This is what Buddha taught and this is what the Vedas say. Buddha once said, for a human being it is a greater achievement to conquer a single desire than to fulfill thousand desires. But today it’s about fulfilling thousand desires, rather than to conquer one. Today’s youth needs an education to teach them to be happier with less and less rather than chase shadows. Therefore, I believe that our ancient system of human or spiritual evolution is, once again, needed more than industrial revolution. Spiritual evolution over industrial revolution is what I think ultimately our schools will have to give priority to. If we want to keep this planet for the next generation, we have to groom our children differently. If schools are a problem, higher education seems to be in a deeper mess. Universities are living in a self-imposed cocoon. Thousands of engineers are churned out, but only a very small percentage is employable. Why has higher education collapsed? Yes, higher education is also in a big mess. Not just because we churn out graduates who are not employable, our higher education is like our schools where it is all about putting young people in classrooms away from real life, making them memorize pages from books, listening to lectures for hours, without any learning from it. I believe humans have not evolved to learn sitting in classrooms listening to lectures and scribbling on papers.

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